A Month After Trade Vote, Bad Blood Persists Between the Left and Democrats

A vote for the fast-track authority could cost Earl Blumenauer his bike pin.

Earl Blumenauer, the clean-energy-loving, Keystone-pipeline-fighting, fluorescent bike-pin-wearing Oregon Democrat, had always been a green darling, but that all changed last month when it became clear he'd vote to give the White House fast-track approval for a trade deal with Pacific nations.

Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, and Food and Water Watch ran ads against him, charging that his vote "would devastate our environment and contribute to climate change."

And a month after the vote, those wounds are still raw. How bad is it? The climate group 350.org is weighing whether to send activists into Blumenauer's office and demand that he take off his iconic bike pin in a "citizen's recall."

The fast-track vote last month was a fractious one that ultimately pitted House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi against President Obama, who had negotiated with Republican leaders on the fast-track authority. Ultimately, 28 Democrats in the House and 13 in the Senate sided with Republicans to pass fast-track approval.

Obviously, not everyone has moved on. Outside progressive groups who are fighting ferociously against the trade deal aren't letting go. In fact, some are even threatening to stymie the careers of Democrats they once considered allies.

"We told people all along this is a key issue for us. So those Democrats who collaborated with John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, yeah, we're not working for them," said Larry Cohen, the retired president of the Communications Workers of America who has been leading some of the progressive response. "Maybe we won't be voting for a Republican, but a lot of these people are going to get a primary and we'll be backing a good opponent in a primary."

CREDO Action, for instance, is circulating a petition charging that Sen. Patty Murray is "unfit" to serve on Democrats' leadership team (she's currently fourth in line in the party's Senate leadership and is rumored to be a contender for the whip post after Minority Leader Harry Reid retires in 2016).

And other groups are refusing to sit down with members on issues outside of the trade bill. Among Blumenauer and environmentalists, the lines of communication remain down, even with weeks of time to cool down.

"This is someone we once viewed as one of the staunchest climate champions, and he went against us on an issue we see as incongruent with climate action," said Ben Schreiber, who heads the climate team at Friends of the Earth. There has been no contact between the group and Blumenauer's office since the ads began running in May, he said.

And for his part, Blumenauer isn't making any overtures to win his former admirers back.

"People who run ads against me are welcome to do it, and I have nothing to say to them," Blumenauer said in an interview. "The people who would run that ad don't respect me and I have no interest in working with them. I have a very strong working relationship with people in my community and national groups on environmental issues, and I've been doing it for a lifetime. No change for me.

"It sounds like a problem for them, not me," he added.

Progressive groups were vehemently opposed to giving the White House authority to negotiate with 11 other countries on the Trans-Pacific Partnership because they said it would ship jobs overseas, keep the lines open for lax regulations, and potentially worsen global warming by keeping up production of fossil fuels.

In the run-up to the vote, groups tried to claim scalps and pressure members, protesting outside of offices and in districts. The AFL-CIO ran a series of aggressive ads against Democratic Rep. Ami Bera of California, including a mock classified posting that asked for "a congressman w/backbone to represent working families." Rep. Kathleen Rice, a freshman New York Democrat, was hit with ads from the AFL-CIO after she reversed course and decided to vote for the trade deal after previously signing letters opposing it. Even traditional allies—among them House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Rep. Jim Costa of California—were hit with protests organized by labor and progressive groups.

Weeks later, progressives aren't saying sorry, not even just for show. This vote, they say, was a legacy-defining one that can't just be filed away in a scorecard or ignored as part of a larger legacy. "The anger," said Cohen, "is palpable."

"Here's what we learned during the TPP fight: There's a difference between fair-weather friends and true champions," Karthik Ganapathy, spokesman for 350.org, said in an email. "That's a distinction our movement takes seriously, because we need representatives who will stand with us even when it's hard. (Imagine a future fight whipping votes for a carbon tax)."

Not every targeted member is taking the hard stand that Blumenauer's taking and shutting out their naysayers. A spokesman for Murray said that she continues to work closely with labor groups "as she continues to fight for progressive policies that increase wages and economic security for workers and families across the country." That includes work on paid sick leave, the minimum wage, and worker scheduling—an issue that the AFL-CIO just last week praised Murray on.

A spokesman for Rice said "the lines of communication remain open and we look forward to working with labor on a lot of important issues," adding that the congresswoman had recently met with local Sierra Club members. And Bera said he looked forward to getting back on the same page as his supporters.

"I don't take any of this politics personally. Our job is to look past it, think about the people we serve, and do the right thing," Bera said in an interview. "During the August recess, I'll make a bunch of phone calls and take individual meetings to explain my rationale, how this is about creating higher-paying jobs, more middle-class jobs, and looking at ways to make sure we're addressing their concerns in the actual final bill."

And to be sure, not every group is shutting down relations with every member, not with a stacked agenda still ahead of Congress. Green groups will need every Democratic vote they can muster to beat back Republican attacks on President Obama's climate plan, while labor groups are staying active on workers' issues and the transportation-bill debate. Later this year, Congress will have to bring up the budget, review the Iran nuclear deal, and consider tax reform, all debates that carry the potential for intense lobbying and partisan debate.

That's why the Democrats themselves have been able to put the vote aside as business and stick together as a minority caucus, members said.

"We all have our battles to fight and our differences and disagreements, but as a caucus we come together to debate the issues," said Rep. Barbara Lee of California, who fought against the fast-track deal. "People can have different points of view in our caucus."

The fight isn't over; fast-track was just a prelude for the full Trans-Pacific Partnership that is still being negotiated and will have to clear Congress again.

But with negotiations being held out of the public eye, the best outside parties have to go on is to reflect on the fast-track failure and look ahead to the future.

"There's always room for redemption," said Murshed Zaheed, deputy political director for CREDO. "A dozen Democratic votes made the difference the last time, so the opportunity to fight is still there. There's still time for members to come to their senses."